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"We Never Talked About That"

We've ALL had that moment. The moment where your client sits down across from you and you ask about their progress on the previous session's topics. Then they just sit there for far too long before finally saying "fine I guess". You dig just a little, "what about changing your environment so XYZ becomes easier?" The blank stare comes back before the painful comment:

"You never told me anything about that"

You, however, remember it was about 60% of the previous session.

Every professional, whether you are a dog trainer, fitness instructor, addictions counselor, or a basket-weave mentor knows this feeling. Kinda makes the blood boil. Especially the second and third times it happens.

Ever stop to wonder though, WHY it happens?

As it turns out, a German man named Hermann Ebbinghaus asked that same question, except fortunately for us, Ebbinghaus was a scientist. He ran a study in the 1880s and concluded that people forget up to 75% of what they learn, in just 3 days, up to 80% in a week, and around 90% over a month. That's insane. He named the phenomenon "The Forgetting Curve" and his work holds true even today, as it was repeated in 2015 with nearly identical results.

It's not hopeless though

The forgetting curve is harsh, but there is a way to help. During his study, Ebbinghaus also discovered that a review of the material within 24 hours would take that 75% loss and reduce it to 50% over the same time period. Additional reinforcement every 24 hours can make that information virtually unforgettable! Of course, that would take repeated reviews every day over a very long period of time and who has time for that.

As we drift off to sleep at night, our brain has a wonderful way of de-cluttering everything. We remove information we unconsciously deem irrelevant and convert short-term memory to long-term memory on important things. This is perhaps the best argument for reinforcement. When that information your brain dumped the previous night comes up again, you double-check for relevance again the next night while you sleep and dump less of it.


So reinforcement is how we help our clients retain the information from our sessions. What are some of the best reinforcement methods?

1 Inescapable

The hands-down best reinforcers are things we cannot get around. Combinations to locks we use daily for example. You must remember or practice the skill before you can proceed with whatever activity you were working on. Effectively gating yourself from an activity until you perform the memory check or gate-task will always make you faster and have a better recall/execution on the gate-task.

2 Conspicuous

The next best reinforcers are the ones that are in the way, but don't prevent action. The perfect example of this is the sticky-note on the cheesecake in the fridge. "Don't eat me" it says, reminding you at the precise time to practice that skill of self-control.

3 Email

This one is only a good reinforcer if the student wants to be reinforced. They have to decide whether they want to be reminded of the skill they are working on and how best to work with it. On the bright side, email is the one that can contain the most detail on the reinforcement. Inescapable reinforcers are going to be tied to a generally simple idea. Not a lot can go on around it. Conspicuous reinforcers likewise do not have a lot of information in them. Email reinforcement, however, can contain video links, external links, and written explanations all of which are examples of high-content reinforcement.

4 Text

The text message is much like the conspicuous message in that it is extremely limited on content, but it exchanges the placement for accountability. You never know if that text is going to show up at a good time for them to practice what they are trying to learn, or if it will get swept away because it is not relevant at the time. But at least they will have to answer for their action or inaction.

5 Phone call

Finally we have the phone call. This one is the most interactive reinforcer of the set, but this is because it literally relies on walking the student through the things they have been working on. Again this reinforcement method exchanges placement for accountability. Unless you feel like hiding in your clients fridge to interrupt their midnight snacking.

No matter which method(s) you choose to reinforce your client's need to learn, grow, adapt, or change, it helps in at least a small way to take you from that conversation above to: "Yeah, I actually did pretty well with it this week. Check out what I did!"

Which reinforcers are you using? Which should you add?

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